This is a non-gaming related piece of writing, but with the way the world seems to be going at the minute, I felt it was relevant. It was also an attempt to externalise some of my anxiety about life in general, so be warned that anxiety plays a large part in the story.
A PDF version is available here.
With a smooth motion of his wrist, he finished colouring the final layer of the image and sat back in his chair. He absently massaged his left temple as his eyes darted around the picture, noting the likely points for improvement and editing.
Depicted in bright colours, and posed provocatively, the super-heroine was intended to launch a new line of comics and had been entirely his creation. The original sketches had depicted a middle-aged woman wearing considerably more clothes than the teenager he had been told to draw. He sighed and signed his name, Eric Forester, in the lower corner of the picture so that the new manager would know who had sent the work to be approved.
He sighed and glanced around the Art Room. It was not unusual for him to be alone at this time of night but, surprisingly, there were two other artists present. Martin glanced up and nodded, his eyes surrounded by dark rings, before focusing on the projected display in front of him. Gail was hunched over her desk in the corner, her hands moving furiously.
Eric stood and stretched out his back, the vertebrae popping audibly. The noise seemed to fill the near silent room and he looked around again, checking he hadn’t disturbed anyone. He leaned forwards over his desk and saved the file before sending it up the chain in preparation for tomorrow’s meeting. With a tired smile he turned his computer off, snagged his coat from the back of the chair and turned to leave.
As he walked, he absently turned the headphones built into his hood on and let the music wash over him, the notes dancing through his tired mind. He walked swiftly through the building, lifting his eyes from the floor only to check he was entering the right number into the security keypad at the front door.
As he stepped out of the building, his hands jammed into his pockets and wrapped around both his keys and his telephone, the cool night air embraced him. When he had left home this morning, it had been swelteringly hot and the sun had almost blinded him. It appeared that sometime during the day, the long promised storm front had rolled through and a refreshing breeze danced over the exposed skin of his face.
It was a short walk from the main door of the building to the car-park and he navigated it by memory, lost in thought as he began mentally re-touching the image, assigning different colour values to certain shades, reshaping one or two contours. His knee bumped the side of his car and he blinked out of his reverie, dimly aware that he had passed the night watchman on his rounds a moment ago. He turned and watched the uniformed figure round a corner, noting the way the shadows from the L.E.D.s built into the ceiling fell across the rough tarmac of the car-park.
As it sometimes did on nights like this, his right calf ached from the short flight of stairs he’d absently climbed and he bent slightly to massage it briefly before unlocking his car and sliding into the seat. The engine activated with the press of a button, a barely perceptible vibration passing through the frame of the car as the motor silently engaged.
At this time of night, the drive was an easy one. The roads were almost entirely devoid of traffic and he relaxed as he drove, his fingers drumming unceasingly on the smooth plastic of the steering wheel. It was only as he neared his house that he caught himself tapping on the wheel and frowned, stilling the movement. He’d promised to try and stop doing that.
The garage door swung open silently and the car rolled into position above the magnetic charging plate built into the floor. He turned it off and got out, locking both it and the now closed garage door in a habitual motion. The door leading into the house swung open as he approached it and Nina stepped out, a steaming mug in one hand.
“Hi.” She said, her eyes darting about his face and noticing how tired and pale he looked. “Long day, huh?” He nodded and stepped forwards, carefully wrapping his arms around her.
He held her for a few seconds, enjoying the floral scent of her hair and then stepped back.
“I missed you. The new manager wanted the work done as soon as possible and you know what Michelle is like.” Nina nodded, both of them remembering the very public manner in which Michelle had terminated the last artist’s contract for missing a deadline. “Is that tea?”
Wordlessly he took the offered mug and sipped the hot liquid.
“Simon took his first steps today.” Nina said as they stepped into the house, walking slowly towards the living room. “He was so proud. He’s just like Mike was at that age.” Eric smiled and took another sip of tea. “Monica wanted to stay up and show you something she drew at school but I had to put her to bed. There’s something going around at her school and I think she’s come down with whatever it is.” Eric stopped, his mind flashing back to the night they had lost Mike. Nina placed her hand on his arm. “She’ll be fine. It’s just a cold of some sort.”
He nodded and smiled slightly.
“I’ll have to stop worrying about everything, huh?” She laughed and reached up to his hair, running her fingers through it.
“You better had. You’re going grey already, old man.”
“Old? I’ll show you old!” He put his mug down on a nearby cupboard and wrapped his arms around her, kissing her deeply. They parted, cheeks flushed slightly, and Nina giggled.
“Last one to the bath has to do whatever the other one says!” She sped off, her feet nearly silent on the thick carpet. Eric laughed and followed, shortening his stride and allowing her to increase the distance between them. It was an old game of theirs, but it was a good one.
He had awoken this morning with sweat-soaked sheets wrapped tightly around his body and a dull ache in his jaw from where he had clenched his teeth in the night. Nina had made him smile, as she always did, by rolling over into the slight depression he had made in the mattress. By the time he was fully dressed, she’d woken up and was waiting for him in the kitchen.
They’d eaten together and he had kissed his sleeping children good bye before the two of them had shared a passionate kiss in the hall. He smiled to himself, remembering her last words.
“Remember, no matter how you feel, or what your head might tell you, your work is good. You’ve won awards for it. You’ve given speeches about it. And if they don’t like it, you’ll always have us.”
The lift stopped moving and, with a slight woosh, the doors opened. He stepped out, briefcase in one hand, and looked around. Michelle was pacing at the end of the hall and Selene was sitting nearby. He closed his eyes momentarily and took a deep breath.
“There you are.” Michelle’s voice carried easily on the still air. “It took you long enough. I thought you were going to be late.” He glanced at his watch, he was five minutes early. “Do you realise how important this deal is? Even having a pilot episode commissioned is a milestone and would go a long way to cementing Salt’s place in the modern superhero genre.” She paused, as if expecting him to say something.
“I’m sorry, Michelle. I know how important this deal is for the future of the Brine line.” He placed a little emphasis on the name, trying to remind her yet again what the character’s name was. “We’ll show them how versatile the IP can be, don’t worry.” Michelle glanced at Selene, who nodded.
“Well then. They’re waiting for us. Smiles and confidence, please.” Without bothering to wait for a reply, Michelle span on her heel and strode forwards, pushing open the big wooden doors she had been pacing in front of. Eric looked at Selene, his fingers drumming absently on the handle of his briefcase. She shrugged and followed the older woman.
Michelle, her sense of timing as impeccable as ever, had just finished introducing herself and had turned to the doorway to announce them.
“Selene Mackintosh, our head of New Medias and Eric Forester, one of our senior artists and creator of this IP. I’m sure that they’ll be able to answer any questions you might have regarding the project.” Michelle gestured for them to sit and then took her own seat.
Eric watched as the meeting began and followed what he suspected to be the standard template for meetings of this sort. Michelle offered platitudes and compliments, in return she received administrative and financial questions. Her responses were loquacious and full of easy to digest phrases that Eric knew meant very little in practice. He could see that many of the other people in the meeting weren’t buying into what she was saying so he wasn’t surprised when the television executives began directing their questions at Selene.
Her answers were immediately better received, consisting of facts, figures, estimates and all the other sorts of information that Michelle should have known but didn’t. He began to unfocus, his eyes following who was speaking while his mind began simultaneously telling him that he knew nothing about his own project, that it was a terrible idea, whilst also analysing the colours in the room and the composition of the people clustered around the table.
It took him by surprise when one of the men turned to face him and asked him a question. He blinked out of his reverie and asked the man to repeat his question. He felt, rather than saw, the sharp look Michelle threw at him.
“How did the idea come to you?”
Eric nodded and took a moment to gather his thoughts, moving his right hand to lay on his thigh in order to hide the tremor that had started when all the eyes in the room moved to his face.
“I was, I was watching,” He swallowed. “I was watching an interview with an amputee who said it was a transformative experience that made her realise she could be more pro-active in life and it made me think about how most of us aren’t all that pro-active about helping other people. Considering where I work, I think it’s an understandable leap to start imagining this situation leading to a superhero being born.” He looked down at his briefcase, running a thumb across the scuff marks on its surface.
When he looked back up, the man who had asked him the question was staring thoughtfully into space and the conversation had shifted back to Selene.
She fielded questions about practicality and co-operation for the next half an hour before the inevitable happened. While Selene was explaining the potential merchandising options she had been designing and pricing, Michelle cleared her throat and interrupted her.
“Eric has some character designs that I’m sure he’s eager to show you. Both for the hero and some of the villains. Isn’t that right, Eric?”
He met her eyes, knowing instinctively that it wasn’t really a question. He coughed and began fumbling with the lock on his briefcase, willing the tremor in his right hand to stop. The case unlocked with a click and he pulled out a sheaf of papers, feeling his chest tighten as he realised everyone was now watching him and judging the quality of his work. He shuffled them so a few of his rougher pieces were at the back and made to hand them over the table.
“No, Eric. I took the liberty of putting them on a USB flash drive so everyone could see them.” Michelle said, pulling a metal flash drive from her pocket and handing it to the technician who had been sitting in the corner should any I.C.T. problems arise. He pressed a button on the table edge and a projector lowered itself from the ceiling.
As the technician pushed the drive into place, the projector lit up and a holographic display of Eric’s work shimmered into life in the centre of the table.
The walls around him began to pulse in time with his heartbeat and a thin layer of sweat beaded his forehead.
“Go on, Eric. Impress us all with your genius.” Michelle’s tone was light and friendly, but both he and Selene knew that it was specially calculated to appear that way. He stood, both hands shaking slightly.
“Yes,” He began, blinking rapidly and trying to ignore the pounding of his heart in his temples. “As you can-“ he swallowed several times, trying to ignore all the eyes looking at him. “As you can see, Brine’s inspirations-“ His vision began to go black around the edges, “Sorry, Brine’s inspirations are mainly Maori in terms of art direc-“ His legs gave way beneath him and he fell, his head cracking off the edge of the table.
He opened his eyes slowly, the bright light sending pain shooting through his head. Around him, he could barely out make multi-coloured blurs that slowly resolved into a well lit room decorated in neutral tones and filled with softly beeping machines. The bed he was laying on was soft and he turned his head slowly on the thick pillow as movement drew his eye.
Nina was sitting nearby, a book in her hands. She saw the slight movement and dropped it, jumping to her feet. She crossed the few feet to the bed and threw her arms around him, ignoring the thin tube hooked up to an I.V. drip.
“I was so worried.” She whispered against his neck. “Don’t you ever do that again.” She pulled away slightly, staring into his eyes. He licked his dry lips and swallowed.
“What happened?” He croaked, his throat strangely dry.
“You had a panic attack and passed out. The doctors said you sustained a head injury when you fell but….” She trailed off, averting her eyes.
“What is it?” He asked, his voice slightly stronger. He felt her hands ball into fists behind his back.
“They had to operate but no-one will tell me why.” She said quietly, her tone sharp.
There was a knock on the door and a woman in a hospital uniform walked in.
“Welcome back to the land of the living, Mr. Forester. You’ll be happy to know the operation was a success and that your sponsor is taking care of the medical bills during your time with us. I’ve just got to do a few tests and then I’ll leave you alone with your wife.”
He knew that he should be worried about having an operation but all he felt was an odd elation. Mentally he shrugged, reasoning that he probably still had some strong painkillers in his bloodstream.
“What…” his voice faltered, “What operation?” The woman blinked.
“Oh. No-one’s told you?” She cleared her throat and pressed a button attached to the projector on her wrist. A small blue readout sprang into being and she read it for a moment. “You are test subject 001 for the Ashland Bio-medical Human Testing of the….
“You know what? It has a really long scientific name but the short version is that you are the first test subject in a perfectly legal, humane, sanctioned medical trial of an experimental chip that is slowly re-wiring your brain to remove your anxiety problems. Isn’t that great?” She smiled widely.
“But that’s….that’s illegal. Doesn’t he need to provide consent for you to do that to him?” Nina asked sharply, placing a hand on Eric’s chest.
“Not as of this morning. Parliament enshrined in law the right of an employer to provide medical consent for an employee in certain situations where it is deemed that the employee will gain a significant improvement to their quality of life that will allow them to contribute more efficiently to society and the workplace.” The woman’s tone was matter of fact, as if she were repeating something she had learned by rote. “And as his records show, a Mrs Michelle Halstrom provided consent for this perfectly safe trial procedure.
A fog of pleasure drifted through Eric’s brain as another wave of painkillers rushed through him.
“How does it work?” He asked, his tone curious. Nina shot him a worried look. The woman smiled vacuously at him.
“My understanding is that whenever you would ordinarily feel anxious, or scared, or worried, the chip attached to your brain stimulates certain areas of it so that you feel happy and excited instead. It really is a marvellous piece of technology when you think about it. No more panic attacks, no more anxiety dreams. Your quality of life will be higher and you’ll be able to do all those things you’ve wanted to do but were too scared to do.” She turned off the projector at her wrist. “Now, I’ve just got a few things to do and then I’ll leave you two alone to talk about this revolutionary change in your life.”
The woman, who introduced herself as Nurse Brown, bustled around the room for a while before finally leaving. Nina watched her leave and then turned to him.
“Are you okay? How do you feel?” She leaned in and kissed him gently on the cheek.
“I’m fine, honey. Honestly. Just a bit tired and spaced out from the painkillers, that’s all.” A look of worry flashed across Nina’s face. “What is it?”
“You aren’t on painkillers right now.”
“Oh. I guess it’s the last of the painkillers from my surgery then.” She nodded.
“That must be it. We’ll see about getting you discharged as soon as we can. Michelle said you could have a week off work to recover, so you can spend some time with me and the kids for a change.” He smiled, closing his eyes.
“That would be nice.”
He’d had a nice relaxing week off work. They’d taken the kids out, Nina had worked from home in order to keep an eye on him, each evening was spent curled up on the sofa with his wife and the hair around the surgery scar slowly grew back. Everything had passed in a golden haze. By the time he got back to work, he was itching for something to do.
Eric had never been one to sit idle. Even at home he had been tinkering in his spare time, fixing a few things, finishing the bookshelves he had started to assemble months ago and framing a few pieces of his work for Nina to sell at a charity auction. Now though, he was ready to get back to his digital easel.
The office had thrown him a party when he arrived. Nothing special, just a few hot drinks and a slice of cake but it was appreciated. There was a note on his desk from Michelle congratulating him on his recovery and announcing that the television deal had gone through. He was to expect a phone call from her later in the week. Taped to the back of the note was a business card from a representative of Ashland Bio-medical. The first thing he had done was call the number on it, a shiver of anticipation rushing through him.
The secretary on the other end had informed him that her boss, Dr. Peter Wyland, had been assigned to answer any questions that he may have about the trial or the technology attached to his brain. Before he hung up, she had also told him that the first of several regular meetings between the two had been scheduled for that evening. It was Wyland’s idea that they get to know each other as a method for evaluating the success of the trial.
Now he was sitting at his desk, staring at the display. The notes on his last piece of work had come through and had taken nearly an hour to implement to his satisfaction. He’d sent it back and had decided to start a new piece whilst he waited. But he couldn’t think of anything to draw.
Before, he would allow his mind to drift and speak to him. In amongst the insecurities, happy memories, turbulent emotions and patches of calm he would remember half-glimpsed people, snatches of a song or the floral notes of a perfume that would send him into a creative frenzy. Now, however, when he tried to calm his mind and listen to it, all he felt was an odd sense of detached contentment.
He’d been feeling the same way all week. Being with his wife and children made him incredibly happy but underneath it all, he had felt content. There had been none of his usual desire to push his limits and improve himself or his skills, there had been no creative drive. Even the D.I.Y. projects he’d finished were ones that were mostly complete.
Sitting here at his desk, staring at the blank display projected into the air in front of him, he began to wonder if the creative spark would ever return. As he thought that, a wave of happiness rushed through him and he realised that it would. He just had to wait and everything would be alright in the end.
He sighed and opened up an older work in progress, absently altering a few lines here and there, retouching the shading, redrawing part of the clothing. It wasn’t what he wanted to be doing, but it was something.
The clock moved slowly throughout the day. Unable to summon the creative spark that fuelled his work and had won him a few awards, Eric was forced to re-tool older pieces and consider what would happen if the spark never came back. As he thought this, he relaxed instantly, knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that it would come back. The surgery had just made him feel out of sorts and it would take a while to get back into the swing of things.
It was this thought that kept playing through his mind as he drove to Dr. Wyland’s office. It was only as he stopped the car that he realised he could remember the journey from his desk to his car with perfect clarity and that he had not tapped his fingers once over the past week. Nor he had woken covered in sweat with aching jaws, or stammered as nerves caused his throat to suddenly go dry.
He smiled and shrugged to himself, habitually reaching to turn the music off before noticing it wasn’t on.
“I guess whatever they did is working.” He said out loud as he turned the car off and opened the door. The secretary was a pretty woman who smiled at him and ushered him into the doctor’s office.
Dr. Wyland himself, a middle-aged man in a three-piece suit, was sitting behind a desk.
“Welcome, Mr. Forester. May I call you Eric? So good to meet you.” Dr. Wyland stood up and came around his desk, reaching out to shake Eric’s hand. “These meetings are completely informal but whatever you tell me will be treated with the utmost confidentiality. Hell, you can trust me more than you can trust your wife about this medical trial.”
He laughed, a loud braying noise that set Eric’s teeth on edge. “Now, Eric,” he continued, not waiting for an answer, “I must tell you that the bio-medical chip attached to your brain was my project so I would appreciate complete honesty. You are, of course, perfectly within your rights to not tell me everything, but the more I know, the easier I will find it to help you and to help fix your….condition. Have a seat, won’t you?”
Eric automatically went to sit before pausing.
“My condition?” The doctor cleared his throat.
“Yes. Severe anxiety. Certain medical professionals would categorise what you experienced up until last week as a mental illness, something that could be managed but not truly fixed. I, however, know that all things to do with the brain can be fixed with the right application of modern technology. And what can’t be fixed now, we just have to wait for.” He laughed again, the noise and his words sending a spike of anger through Eric.
“I didn’t need to fixed.” Eric said slowly, straightening up. “I was fine as I was.”
“Your employer didn’t seem to think so, and as they are now able to judge these things for you, the procedure was deemed in your best interests. And now you’re fixed. Aren’t you happier?” The doctor’s tone had become patronising and Eric leaned against the desk as he struggled to contain the rising anger.
Before last week, he would have worried about the consequences of letting his rage out. Before last week, he would have struggled to contain it. Now, however, he began to battle with the feeling flooding his system that the rage was perfect. That it was the only possible response to this situation. He didn’t need to be fixed. There was nothing wrong with him. Who were they to make that decision for him?
He turned and leaned further over the table, watching the doctor walk over to the window.
“Come here, Eric. Look out the window. Tell me that view isn’t more beautiful now you’re fixed. Tell me that sunset doesn’t make you want to sing and cry and paint.”
Eric’s head snapped up, his hands closing unconsciously on the doctor’s letter opener. The man was looking out the window into a glorious golden sunset. Before, he would have been analysing the composition of the sight and the contrasting shadows. Now, he felt a keen sense of loss at his inability to do so. His heart began pounding in his temples as he walked up behind the doctor.
“You’re right,” he said quietly. “I can tell you those things. I haven’t felt like that since you fixed me.”
The doctor turned, his mouth open to say something. Eric saw the patronising look in his eyes and acted without thought, his anger boiling over. His hand came up, slamming the letter opener through the soft flesh of the doctor’s bottom jaw, through his palate and into his brain. The doctor fell, the letter opener jerking out of Eric’s grasp. He stood there, looking down at the body, a frisson of enjoyment dancing along every nerve as he considered the consequences of what he had done.
A pool of blood slowly began to form around the doctor’s head, the crimson liquid seeping into the bright, cream carpet. Eric felt a sense of ecstasy as he looked at the image and began making notes on the shapes, the shades, and the ease of execution and he smiled.
He’d been right. He’d found it again. He’d found his creative spark.